Museum Computer Network and the Smithsonian Institution: The Vision

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Museum Computer Network, this first blog explores the early interactions of MCN with the Smithsonian.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Museum Computer Network (MCN), this is the first blog in a series, which will explore the early interactions of MCN (in 2017 a museum professional organization) with the Smithsonian, based on contemporary documents found in the Smithsonian Institution Archives. This first post in a series examines the MCN vision as recorded by several people in the first six months of the project.

Everett Ellin had a vision for museums, which he described in the “Interim Progress Report,” dated June 1968: “Our purpose is to design a system for a computer-based archive cataloguing all public art collections in the United States at a central location, from which such information (along with pertinent bibliographic and documentary data) would be disseminated—both to museums and for the general requirements of education and research—over a communication network serving museums, libraries and educational institutions throughout the country.”  The goal was to include both “textual and image retrieval capabilities.” Ellin’s vision led to the establishment of the Museum Computer Network, now known as MCN.

The history of Museum Computer Network (MCN) can be divided into several phases.  The initial phase was roughly from February 1967 to April 1, 1970, when Everett Ellin was the leader and Executive Director.  The MCN vision was for a single comprehensive United States art database. This was followed by a period when MCN became more of a GRIPHOS (an acronym for General Retrieval and Information Processor for Humanities Oriented Studies) software and support organization, which then gradually morphed into a professional organization for museum-technology specialists to meet and exchange ideas, best practices, and information.

Smithsonian researchers Donald Squires and Daniel Reed discussed the project with Ellin in New York City on Dec. 28, 1967. Squires said that Ellin "envisions that when technology has made possible better image projection and indices to collections are computerized, viewers will be able to draw upon the resources of the art community as a whole, both to engage prepared lectures, tours, and assemblages and to formulate their own art programs in their homes. While being visionary in this respect, Ellin is also sufficiently realistic to understand that the program must be sold in the here and now by consideration of more effective housekeeping procedures for the participating museums.”

Nicholas J. Suszynski, Jr., Reginald A. Creighton, and Dr. Donald F. SquiresEllin’s early vision was also recorded by Nicholas Suszynski in an April 9, 1968 memorandum, based on their meeting of April 1: “These plans include a very ambitious museum reference system, having global implications. On a smaller scale he envisions [a] national information system where charactron tubes with keyboards tied via leased telephone lines to N.Y. Museum Computer Network would be used to communicate by remotely located museums across the country. Although Mr. Ellin's hopes and plans are technologically feasible I find it difficult to believe that he will find necessary sums of money to implement such a network.”

The MCN computer project was the first multi-museum effort to document art museum holdings with the goal of improving public and educational access to the collections in the United States. While his plans were ambitious in the 1960s, over the years his ideas have not lost their appeal. Today, projects like the Google Cultural Institute and the Digital Public Library of America have shown his vision for a digital network cataloging collections across institutions for increased access is popular and possible. 

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